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Are NFL running backs making a comeback? Old school New England Patriots rush their way to AFC top spot

By Nat Coombs

Published: 13:54, 8 December 2021

The unreconstructed, retro leanings of the New England Patriots have moved to a whole new level.

The Pats, paradoxically a surprise package enjoying success that was somehow inevitable, are now the number one seeds in the AFC after their 14-10 Monday Night Football slugfest win over divisional rivals the Bills. Up to this point, the ‘run first, defense wins championships’ vibe of New England was feeling very 2004. After their latest win, where rookie Mac Jones attempted a grand total of three passes, Bill Belichick’s contenders went to full 1934 mode. In the razzle, dazzle aerial era of pass happy, spread offenses, it was brilliantly, unrepentantly old school.

The Pats’ success this season – and their style of offense – is one of several examples that suggests a re-emergence of the running back position in the NFL. But on closer inspection, things may not be changing back that much after all.

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The stock of the running back has fallen dramatically in the past decade. In 2005, Shaun Alexander was on top of the gridiron world, freshly anointed league MVP, an accolade that earned him an eight-year, $62 million dollar contract with the Seahawks. Three years later he was cut by Seattle, and soon out of football altogether. Boom to bust in the blink of an eye.

In the same year (2005), three of the first five draft picks taken were running backs. In contrast, only three running backs have been taken in the first round of the last two Drafts — two in 2021, and the 32nd overall pick in 2020.

The highest annual salary for a running back this season is held by Christian McCaffrey of the Panthers, who’s netting circa $16 million. It’s a big chunk of change, but it ranks him in the mid-70s in terms of all current NFL players. Outside of quarterbacks, this list includes wide receivers, linebackers, edge rushers, offensive tackles, defensive tackles, and cornerbacks all ahead of McCaffrey and Zeke Elliott, the next best paid running back.

There are various reasons for this diminishing value. Firstly, and most significantly, is the shift from using a feature back — often for most downs — to a collection of less individually talented, interchangeable backs, or as is sometimes described, a running back by committee. The cautionary tale of Alexander is a guide here. Running backs take a lot of punishment and wear down more quickly than other highly prized skill positions — particularly if they’re every down backs.

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Indeed, injury has been a factor for the most prominent backs of the current generation. Both McCaffrey (out for this season, having missed much of last) and Saquon Barkley, the Giants’ highly touted first rounder who missed most of last season and hasn’t been the same since his return, are examples of the high-risk returns top running backs offer, irrespective of the undoubted talent and edge that the elite players demonstrate over their peers. Rather than splurge on an All-Pro talent, teams are spending the big bucks elsewhere, and picking up solid alternatives — strength in depth means that running backs can be picked up in rounds two or three, or even further down — that can do a serviceable job. And often more than that. Out of this season’s current Top 10 rushing leaders only two were first round picks, and the lower round picks include MVP candidate Jonathan Taylor who has 1348 yards and 16 TDs.

The change in offensive direction, predicated by the onset of more college-friendly spread style looks, and a league that’s continually doing more to protect quarterbacks, thus enhancing the passing game, has also been significant. So too has the increase in dual threat quarterbacks, many of whom carry a chunk of the running load or pose the biggest running threat on their team — Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen most notably. In 2011, just 4 teams passed the ball 60% or more. This season, the number of teams with a 60/40 or higher pass to run ratio is currently 13. In that 2011 season, five teams rushed the ball 50% of the time or more, led by the Broncos at 56%. This year, it’s only one (the Eagles) and only just, rushing at 50.6% of the time. And they’re considered by many to be a one dimensional, run-only team!

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The Eagles’ ratio has shot up this year by over 10% — due to having a new coach and therefore a new offense led by a new quarterback, Jalen Hurts, who is stronger with his legs than his arm. But other teams, like the Pats and the Titans have been consistent in the run/pass balance year on year. The Pats have developed an offense that protects rookie quarterback Mac Jones by, amongst other things, leading with the run, which takes the pressure off him to win games, so rather he’s tasked with not losing them. The Titans use Derrick Henry, when he’s fit, to create havoc as the league’s most dangerous running back, but also, because of that, to set up their passing game. The threat of the run has to be real, forcing defenders to take it seriously and load the box. At the very least, if defenses consider the run is a viable threat, it enables quarterbacks like the Titans’ Ryan Tannehill to have favourable matchups downfield for Julio Jones and AJ Brown.

It’s unlikely that we’ll see a full on reboot and significant reversion to too many more teams adopting a run-heavy offense, but the NFL is a copycat league, so we may see a few more mimic the Patriots’ approach — young quarterback, pragmatic ceiling — or go big on leveraging the threat of the ground game to see up the pass, but as with New England and Tennessee this will be situational, and the exception to the rule. Almost certainly, the days of the individual star back being drafted highly or paid in the very top tier have gone, even with seasons like the one Jonathan Stewart is enjoying in Indianapolis. If Stewart were to replicate similar numbers for the next six to eight years the market may change, but sadly, the chances are he won’t. It’s the same reason he won’t win MVP, even as a worthy contender. The value, fairly or otherwise, is perceived as being elsewhere.

Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.


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